Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina: The quest for sustainability

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Mindy Kay Bricker

Ten years after the war, Bosnia is bleak for women - and women's organizations.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina - About 20 Bosniak members of a women's organization sat in a bus on their way to Sarajevo to meet with the local Helsinki Committee. Some smoked cigarettes, others regaled the group by singing a cappella Bosnian ballads about foreign lovers (though none compare to a Bosnian man), and all made the most of the time with their "sisters."

Once the women - members of Sumejja Kolo, a Novi Travnik-based women's group that provides therapy to victims of war trauma - arrived at the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights office, however, the music stopped and their moods sobered.

They listened as Zivica Abadzic, the general secretary of the Helsinki Committee, spoke of the reality for women in today's Bosnia: In a country that stopped fighting a war 10 years ago, an estimated 55 percent of women are the victims of some kind of domestic violence; 45 percent of the 565,000 unemployed Bosnians are women; most of the 5 to 6 percent of children not enrolled in school are girls; and most women remain somehow traumatized from the war, including everyone who sat around the table on this day.

The percentages, she said, are estimates. But she made no estimates when she said, "Feminism is dead," referring to the lack of solidarity among the country's women to change the reality of such harsh statistics. And judging from the room's silence, it was an incontrovertible and accurate point.

Bosnia does not have a feminist movement, Abadzic said. What it has is "a female scene," comprising a few academics and women's non-governmental organizations, like Sumejja Kolo, who work toward gender awareness and equality.


The challenge of reducing those statistics, hard enough itself, is complicated by the increasingly tough challenge of finding international and domestic donors in order to keep themselves going.

In the late 1990s, Bosnia was "a hot and sexy conflict zone" that attracted foreign aid, according to Valery Perry, a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Perry, who has lived and worked in Bosnia since 1999, said those foreign donors are pulling out and moving their money to Iraq and other conflict areas.

A decade after the war, Bosnia is a transition country where, as in most transition countries lacking developed market economies, the "social position of women almost always deteriorates, while discrimination against women generally increases," states a report presented by a coalition of Bosnian NGOs last year to CEDAW, the UN's convention on discrimination against women. "That is exactly what is happening to women in Bosnia and Herzegovina today," Perry said.

Danica Anderson, a U.S.-based forensic psychotherapist who works with and trains Sumejja Kolo members in Bosnia, said she is "often stunned at how quickly men understand the system of funding, jobs, and networking. The women who run NGOs are survivors of the war and, most likely, also the major caregiver for their whole extended family - the cook, the housekeeper, etc. - and often came too late to participate or be recipients of funding."

Even though the number of women's NGOs has increased since 1999, they make up a much smaller slice of the non-profit pie. According to estimates by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), just 4 percent of NGOs are considered to be "women's groups," as opposed to 16 percent five years ago.

"And yet it is years after the war that women survivors finally have enough breath and breadth, as well as the experience of dealing with trauma, to be able to ask for funding," Anderson said.


Though there are no official government statistics, ICVA estimates there are about 60 women's NGOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of those organizations is Medica Zenica, a group that is widely known throughout the country for its war-trauma therapy and its domestic violence counseling and outreach.

Two kinds of trauma - those of war survivors and those of violence-prone families - are closely connected in Bosnia. From Medica staff to World Bank reports, experts fire off a grapeshot of sequential factors that are causes of domestic violence: war trauma, unemployment, poverty, alcoholism.

Senada, who asked that her real name not be used, left her husband and went to Medica in November. Within the first three days, she had taken one of her children from school to stay with her at the Medica shelter and planned to return for the other two.

Her husband fought in the 1992-95 war. "After the war, he couldn't stand children," she said. "He was nervous and angry, and he couldn't stand kids."

She left her 18-year marriage after he threatened to kill them all.

From 1993 to 2003, Medica provided accommodation to 654 women and 330 children in three safe houses for battered women and children. In 2002, 116 women and children found shelter through Medica. In 2003, that number dropped to 39, and its third safe house was closed.

The decrease was, and will continue to be, a result of slashed funding, which forces Medica to turn people away.

"Everyone supports us verbally, but no one supports us financially," said Mirha Pojskic, a specialist in trauma psychology for Medica. "Our government doesn't have the money or awareness to finance this."

Already dealing with a 13-percent cut in funding - their annual budget is about 21,000 convertible marks ($14,000) - they are anticipating a further 50-percent decrease within the next few years.

"We are also looking for other funds, but in vain," Pojskic said, adding that the majority of their money comes from international donors.

Her words echo a USAID report: "The financial capacities of the NGO sector [in Bosnia] still depend on the international donor community. Many organizations survive on a voluntary basis with very limited amounts of money."

And at times, such NGOs survive with not only limited amounts of money, but no money at all.

When Medica's founders began the organization in 1993, they worked without pay when they had to, Pojskic said, adding that they wouldn't hesitate to do so again.

It is this willingness to turn an NGO into something of a ***pro bono*** operation, said Helsinki's Abadzic, that sends a lethal message to the government.

"Unfortunately, those NGOs will work until they get funded," forgoing their own salaries and temporarily making themselves unemployed, she said.

And the government takes advantage of this, she said. If politicians know that they don't have to spend money on domestic violence because women like these will pursue the problem with or without pay, there is little motivation to intervene and help.

This tendency to rely on the most committed grassroots groups holds true even within the NGO community. When Medica visited the Travnik region, where the Sumejja Kolo members live and operate, they were surprised to find how effectively women were being treated for war trauma. Because of the group's efforts, Medica saw no reason to work in an area with existing, adequate support.


Sumejja Kolo is not an organization full of academics and grant writers. Rather, its members are middle-aged, working-class women who have an innate understanding of women and a learned understanding of war. They cannot afford a regular meeting place, and none receives a salary from the organization; several, if not most, of the women have more than one job (and up to five) in addition to traveling around the area and providing trauma therapy in homes, cafes, and refugee centers.

The meager funding that they do receive is largely from the grassroots efforts of Anderson, who has trained these women since 1999.

In this dry funding climate, Anderson practically panhandles for money for Sumejja Kolo between her three trips each year to Novi Travnik.

"Everything I've done has been through word of mouth and women who give me $5, $10. And before we know it, we have $1,000, $3,000. It's like pulling blood out of a stone," she said.

When she arrived in Novi Travnik last November, she and Sana Koric, Sumejja Kolo's president, sat around Koric's dining room table with money and envelopes placed strategically: a pile of money to put in the bank and a pile of envelopes for thank-you cards. Their level of concentration was such that it seemed as if they were playing a heated game of Risk: $5, $10, $20 bills, even 25-cent coins, tucked in white envelopes with accompanying photos of the American college-student benefactors.

After totting up the donations, the two women talked of approaching various state and institutional donors for grants. But no funding was secured or guaranteed.

"One time I would like to come back here on a vacation," said Anderson, partly in jest. Such a scenario could only come true if the group had reached that mysterious goal sought by all NGOs: "sustainability."

In Martha Walsh's USAID-sponsored evaluation titled "Aftermath: Women and Women's Organizations in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina," she dubbed the NGO process "development Darwinism," meaning that the "strongest NGOs will survive, while the weaker ones will either fade away or join other groups."

She pointed out that because women's organizations established international links "and developed supporters outside the donor community in Bosnia, they may be more likely to withstand the inevitable withdrawal of funds."


But even that might not make them sustainable. In the NGO world, "sustainability" is a measure of how much an organization is influenced by outside aid, whether in the form of initiatives for new programs, decision-making, or of course funding. Compared to other Yugoslav successor states, Bosnian NGOs rank low in terms of sustainability, according to USAID reports for 2003, coming above only Montenegro and Kosovo. But even in Montenegro, the Interior Ministry tapped women's NGOs when it needed guidelines and training for police officers working on domestic abuse cases. In Croatia, women's NGOs remain among the strongest networks, despite the overall weaknesses in the country's non-profit sector.

But there are exceptions - Bosnian women who have used their international links to become sustainable.

Bosnian Handicrafts, a Tuzla-based NGO that was founded to provide war-trauma therapy, prepared itself from its inception in 1999 after it separated from Norwegian People's Aid. The group used international aid to secure a financial loan and catapult its organization into operation, working toward the goal of completely sustainability - a goal that is 80 percent achieved.

The six-woman office coordinates between 200 and 300 women from around the country, regardless of religious or political allegiance, and businesses and buyers from around the world. The women stitch together a living by tapping their talent for knitting - producing socks, sweaters, vests, hats, gloves, bags.

"If you give [the women] money they earned, they feel much better," said Lejla Radoncic, CEO of Bosnian Handicrafts, during a phone interview. "They feel more self-confident, and they feel better about themselves."

Though the group was founded to overcome war trauma through work therapy, now the main mission of the group is to overcome what many identify as the "number-one problem in Bosnia: high unemployment," Radoncic said.

Most of the women rely on Bosnian Handicrafts only for supplemental income or part-time employment. Those knitters who work full-time earn around $200 a month.

Last year the organization had a turnover of $350,000. A major fund-raiser for the group takes place during Robert Redford's annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The first order in 2003 brought in $30,000, Radoncic said, and last year that amount increased to $160,000. In addition, the group works with two French businesses throughout the year.

As to the group's success, Radoncic is modest. "We just used our knowledge and a bit of creativity."

Asked for her assessment of the women's NGO landscape, Radoncic doesn't mince words. "They spend a lot of money without results," she said. "Without sustainability, they can't make it."

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